Winter Weather Flying

As I sit here in Grand Forks, ND, blanketed under over a foot of snow, I think about aviation in the winter, especially at UND.  As a tour guide at UND Aerospace, I think the question I am asked most often this time of year is: do you fly when it’s cold out?  The answer: Yes!  This week’s blog is going to focus on winter flying and a few of my tips to enjoy flying despite the cold.

#1: Plan Your Airports Carefully

During the rest of the year, sans snow, we get pretty comfortable flying into just about any airport.  However, with winter and the cold temperatures it brings, it is important to consider which airports will be the safest.  For instance, metropolitan airports usually have more tenants, more resources, etc., which means if there is snow, they are more likely to get plowed sooner.

In the same way, airports that are more remote and do not have regular services like hangars, deicing, and plug-ins for your engine, should be carefully considered.  UND, for instance, actually has a list of airports that are considered off-limits during the winter because of their location, lack of services, and runway length.  UND recognizes that students may have weather come up quickly during a long cross-country flight and it is important to make sure students are not flying anywhere too remote without a safe place to be.

Planning for airports with consistent snow removal, fuel services, heated hangars and deicing options is one way to make your winter flying more enjoyable and safe.

#2: Carry a Winter Survival Kit

You probably think that could never happen to me (a hazardous attitude, by the way) – finding yourself stuck in a field somewhere, or making an unplanned departure from the runway with no choice but to wait for hours for help to come.  It may seem like extra stuff to carry, but a winter survival kit could be the difference between freezing to death, and well, not freezing to death.

Some things to carry in that kit: extra socks, extra food, water, flashlight and batteries, heat packs (they are so nifty and fit into your gloves and boots), winter boots, an extra jacket, flares, and anything else you might need.  At UND, once the temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, students are required to bring jacket, hat, gloves, and boots on every flight.  Now, the aircraft at UND have their own survival kits, but it can’t hurt to carry your own.  The items I mentioned are pretty lightweight and should not affect your weight and balance too much.  However, if weight and balance is your excuse for not bringing a kit on your cross-country, you have bigger issues.  Plus, if you’re not at UND, you should have your own kit anyways.

#3: Watch the Weather

This may seem like a “duh” tip, but seriously, how many times have we gone flying and seen some weather front move faster than predicted?  During the winter, this is even more important as a sudden drop in temperatures can cool off your aircraft way too fast and make it more difficult to start.  It can also mean that airports might close early due a lack to traffic (especially at non-towered airports) or the line crew goes home early.

More importantly, large winter storms, or even blizzards, can dump lots of snow when you least expect.  Checking the weather often before a winter flight is important to making sure you avoid any potential hazards.  If you are on the fence after looking at a forecast, either get a second opinion, or just don’t go.  Putting yourself in a position where you’re not entirely comfortable with the forecast is just as dangerous.

Organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (www.noaa.gov) have great resources for forecasting as well as weather reports for airports.  Of course, local TAFs and METARs should be used as well when you’re planning your winter flights.  Additionally, don’t forget to check the airports NOTAMs and the new system of field condition reporting, Runway Condition Assessment Matrix (RCAM).  The RCAM is a new way of giving field condition report which started being used as of October 1st.  There will still be Field Condition Reports (FICONs) issued along with the RCAM, but I would expect the FICON to go away after the 2016-2017 winter season.  The FAA has a great Advisory Circular on RCAM here.

Stay Warm!

Hopefully you’re still excited about winter flying this year – that wonderful, clear air is the best to fly in and the views are spectacular.  Just be sure to give the above tips in mind and you’ll be all set to enjoy flying all through the winter.

Have a winter flying tip?  Leave a comment with your winter flying advice!

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